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Questions on “Smart Cities”

April 29, 2013

kian goh_smart cities urban logo

In the 1960s and 70s, technology companies took flight from the cities and set up in suburban corporate parks, dreaming up the information systems that would enable further decentralization, prompting Melvin Webber to proclaim the “post-city age” in 1968. Now, global cities threaded by optical fiber and lit up by sensors, hotspots, and RFID tags herald the techno-urban revolution. “Smart cities” are lauded as emancipatory, a new “urban age” in which intelligent systems increase quality of life and alleviate ecological damage. But “smart cities” also imply new spaces of control and ownership, new frontiers in the privatization of urban space, a “virtual enclosures.” The ultimate potential, it appears, is the control of urban practice itself. What, then, will become of the “right to urban life,” as exhorted by Henri Lefebvre?

What are the real-world impacts of real-time intelligent urban systems? To what extent do “smart city” projects constitute new “virtual” and physical enclosures of urban public space in the globalized, capitalist city? And, as we increasingly submit to real-time information gathering and our means of decision-making become more and more intertwined with the networks of urban systems, how is urban “public” experience transformed?

Logo: “urban” with the “u” enclosed like an @.

Violence and Cities

April 19, 2013

(An entire metropolitan area is on “lockdown” l as I write this. It is surreal, tense, and really makes clear the unnatural state quiet and emptiness is to the urban.)

Twelve years ago, I was literally on the Williamsburg Bridge between Brooklyn and Manhattan as planes hit the World Trade Center towers. On Monday, I was just across the Charles River, in my office at MIT, when two explosions brought the Boston Marathon to a tragic end. Of course, there is no parallel in scale, and no attempt here to compare possible motives. What strikes me is the intense unsettlement that follows such attacks that I, as someone not directly affected by either event, felt in the long months after 9-11, and again as I biked back down Massachusetts Avenue to MIT the morning after the attacks on Monday.


John Hancock building, near Copley Square, Boston

Not directly affected, of course, except by the sense of collective mourning, mediated through the “city.” We all extend our sympathies when these events happen, whether we live in or near Boston, across the continent, or the ocean. But I think this feeling of acute unsettlement manifests itself specifically in the city that is attacked. It is like a fabric that is stretched and distorted, tearing at the seams. While in my own research I’m part of a team of people trying to question and dismantle the ideological distinctions between city and non-city, in everyday life this close-knit urban fabric that binds all of us in the Boston/Cambridge/Somerville/Brookline “city” seems not to be denied. It is why it is so meaningful to so many when small acts like shining a NY<3B symbol on the Brooklyn Academy of Music building.


Projection on Brooklyn Academy of Music building, image via illuminator99 on Twitter

I often think about political scientist Iris Marion Young’s exhortation, in “City Life and Difference,” that the city is potentially a place of “difference without exclusion,” and “unassimilated otherness.” That, in its ideal form, urban life offers us the chance to be different together.

That chance is threatened, of course, when targeted violence strikes the city. There were many moving accounts of people rushing towards the blasts to help, many demonstrations of sympathy and selflessness. But it’s also clear that there is increased tension, fear, suspicion. Do events like Monday’s bombings make us, on the whole, more likely to embrace difference, uncertainty, unknowing? Or do they sow seeds of fear and hate, in spite of our better judgement?

It is coming to light that among the many incredible, heroic acts on Boylston Street right after the bombing was an act of racial profiling. After the attack there were numerous calls from President Obama down not to jump to conclusions about the attacker(s) and motives. Perhaps this is commendable, but not if we realize it’s only necessary because many have jumped to conclusions in the past, to deadly effect. Instances of racism in the Boston area and elsewhere have already begun. (And more.)

This tragic event will no doubt be followed by attempts to increase policing, surveillance, and control of Boston public spaces and events. One can hardly fault the authorities, or the residents, for wanting more security. But such enforcement is unlikely to stop all attacks of this sort. Urban life is dynamic, and it is messy. Accidents are commonplace, anonymity and secrecy often desirable things in the urban, no one can know everything.

So how do we move forward? I’m left thinking that we won’t be able to stop violence in American cities, and the harm it renders to possible urban ideals as envisioned by those like I.M. Young, without a concerted effort to stop violence everywhere else. Acts of violence do not really strike me as random and senseless, even though we perpetually describe them as such. They result from anger and hate, from rational and irrational passions, instabilities, and oppressions.

I think it would be a particularly constructive thing for us (who, for the most part, aspire to progressive or liberal democratic ideals) to reject and resist increased policing, surveillance, and control of our urban spaces, and as well make a deliberate effort to undo, as much as we can, our complicity in other acts of violence, particularly that which is wrought in our name, for our supposed security –

I.M. Young ends her piece with a call for democratization and empowerment at a regional urban scale. I think this is true, but we must scale up even more. A recent piece on the neoliberal market forces driving extreme global inequality made a clear point: if we are going to have a global economy, we must have global democratic oversight. So, along similar lines: in a globalized world, with globalized violence, what kind of radical, global democratization and empowerment movement must we have? How do we get there?

Friday night update:

The second suspect has apparently been caught. The most intense part of this week and these events is likely over.

Justin Davidson at New York Magazine has an interesting piece on whether a city-wide lockdown is really a good thing in this case.

On political contestation and river restoration in Nepal

March 31, 2013

Check out my short review of Anne Rademacher‘s book Reigning the River: Urban Ecologies and Political Transformation in Kathmandu published on Anthem EnviroExperts Review.  Rademacher is professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU, and brings a very distinct historical and socio-ecological frame to a complex story of ecological restoration, land rights, class conflict, and power relationships that’s not necessarily unique to Nepal. Many thanks to Prof. Lawrence Susskind at MIT, who moderates this series of environmentally-themed reviews.


The Urban Candidate 2012 – post-election update

November 7, 2012

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post on “The Urban Candidate(s)?” asking the questions: Who is the urban candidate? (Both.) And what are they saying about the urban? (Not so much.) I included a map overlaying Election 2008 counties on U.S. Census urbanized areas.

The day after Election Day 2012, I congratulate President Obama on a decisive win. And I update the election counties / urban areas map with a new one for Election 2012. Here it is:

Map showing Obama 2012 counties in blue (as of 2pm, Wed, Nov 7) overlaid on U.S. Census 2010 “urban areas.” Overlay map based on election map by Washington Post and urbanized areas and urban clusters map by U.S. Census

* Apologies to residents of Hawaii (especially Hawaii, because you gave us Obama) and Alaska for leaving you off of this map.

New York Magazine’s amazing Sandy cover

November 4, 2012

New York Magazine’s Hurricane Sandy issue has an amazing cover photo. And they borrow my headline.

New York Magazine cover, Nov 3, 2012. Photo by Iwan Baan for New York Magazine

It is the kind of image that puts a lump in your throat. It’s like a Turner landscape painting, but all too real, and made for the post-Millennium techno-and-climate-age. Interestingly, the photographer, Iwan Baan, may not be a household name, but he is very well known in architectural circles for his excellent architectural photography, in which he often eschews the typical tendency for formal, highly-composed, dramatically-lit spaces, usually devoid of people (or, if peopled, usually just as stylized props), for much more ephemeral, of-the-moment, sexy-and-playful, dynamic, and equally, if not more so, dramatic depictions of the lived spaces of design.

Baan has often captured the humanity, the social life, the meaning, of the best designed and non-designed spaces. It is not so surprising that he is the one to capture the human cost of Sandy, even from thousands of feet out. Not necessarily in the photo, but in our collective visceral response to it.

The City and the Storm

November 2, 2012

Thousands still reel from the impacts of Hurricane Sandy earlier this week. Yet it’s been heartening to see various mainstream voices join the chorus for serious engagement with our environmental crises. On one day alone, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times and Bloomberg Businessweek issued strong calls for climate change engagement, and Mr. Bloomberg himself issued a late endorsement of President Obama, citing, in particular, need for immediate action after witnessing the impacts of Sandy.

A sea change in the making? Perhaps. It also indicates, in a way, the slowness, the obstinacy, of responses. In an alternate world we might be outraged that it took a hurricane for Mayor Bloomberg and others to take climate seriously. We might still be outraged now that neither U.S. major party candidate has spoken about this all election year. On this point, I don’t want to imply that they are equivalent. Romney’s appalling jokes about climate change and his promises to de-fund public disaster prevention and relief agencies should disqualify him outright from the presidency.

The disaster has also fueled calls to rebuild, and encouragingly, to rebuild more sustainably, in ways more resilient to increasingly severe weather events. This is important. Geographers like Neil Smith and many others, particularly post-Katrina, have noted that “there is no such thing as a natural disaster.” Weather events might be “natural.” Disasters are situated within social, political, economic contexts. Their impacts are conditioned by resilience, preparedness, foresight. As cities like New York focus increasing attention on sustainability – on parks, bike lanes, LEED-certified buildings, renewable energy – we should also to take a longer, broader look at the constructed geographies of urban areas, the intertwined landscapes of bio-physical and socio-economic factors.

Last year, inspired by, in particular, the work of landscape architects Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha in their studies of the Mississippi River and Mumbai, I produced a series of sectional maps of New York City, focusing on differences in terrain and elevation, and on the geographies of nature and risk. They are snapshots, and a reminder that urban areas – both “natural” parts and otherwise – are heavily constructed and re-constructed, reflecting hundreds of years of manipulation and transformation, and are immensely variegated, often not coincidentally. Excavating and building, land scrapping and land reclaiming, de-naturing/re-naturing, all produce the cities we now know and their systemic vulnerabilities. A view of such “geographic histories” is essential to the planning of future resiliencies.

Map of New York City showing changes in terrain elevation through the city using sectional “cuts.” Map by author

NYC map showing variable amount of vegetated “green space,” superimposed on terrain. Map by author

NYC map showing relative storm risk, superimposed on terrain. Image by author, based on a map by the Wall Street Journal using data from the NYCOEM

NYC map of green space overlaid on storm risk. Image by author


To end: a shout out to two local grassroots organizations who are doing outstanding work post-hurricane: the Red Hook Initiative, a community center in Brooklyn, and CAAAV, a community organizing group in Manhattan’s Chinatown, who have taken the lead in hurricane relief efforts for their communities. They have quickly and effectively mobilized staff, friends, and volunteers to provide information, food and other necessities, and serve as coordination and information centers. Do please help them in their extraordinary efforts!

Red Hook Initiative in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Photo by RHI

The Urban Candidate(s)?

October 17, 2012

Obama in Chicago during 1995 campaign. Photo by Marc PoKempner.

Nov 7, 2012 UPDATE: For a fresh-off-the-press map showing as-of-today Election Map 2012 overlaid on U.S. Census urban areas, go HERE.

A day after the second presidential debate, in which President Barack Obama showed some grit and feistiness, and Mitt Romney managed to be, in turn, out of sorts and offensive – a post on presidential politics and the urban.

Last weekend the New York Times ran an op-ed by historical novelist Kevin Baker. In it he tells of how Republicans have turned their back on the cities, and become the anti-urban party. Baker spins a fascinating story about the Republican urban political machines of yore, and of one Alfred E. Smith, the Democrat, school dropout, Fulton Fish Market-worker, and “quintessentially urban candidate,” who in loosing to Hoover in 1928 set the stage, according to Baker, for the great Democratic embrace of cities.

Baker draws an overly distinct line between city and suburb, and rather simplifies the politics of space and of urbanization. As he himself points out: four-fifths of Americans live in so-called “urban areas” (a specific census category, not always synonymous with popular understanding of the “urban”). If the Republicans were truly anti-urban, the matter would be quickly decided. But his point is clear. The battle for the small number of undecided voters in 2012 is not taking place in the big cities, the mythic urban centers. Indeed, Democratic Party policies are by and large more favorable for large numbers of residents of such urban centers, including state funding for infrastructural development and public amenities, health care, and housing. But, Republican policies are arguably just as good for the somewhat smaller numbers of urbanites – particularly those involved in the financial and real estate development centers of large metropolitan areas. And these are the economic sectors that have done rather well of late, even taking into account the 2008 bank meltdown.

In a sense, both parties have deserted the urban this year. Obama, who, in Feb 2009, established an Office of Urban Affairs to some excitement, has not really built on this early effort to focus more attention on the urban centers of the country. In the same way that any meaningful discussion of the environment is absent, any meaningful discussion of typically urban issues has also been set aside. This is disappointing. We are but one year from the massive uprisings of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street that manifested so strongly in urban areas. Who would have thought early this year that the occupy movement would have so little to do with the late dynamics of the election? Particularly since one of the two candidates basically personifies the 1%.

Ironically, one could argue that both candidates are urban candidates, both formed and informed by the processes of urbanization that have transformed much of America and increasingly everywhere else.

Barack Obama is the “quintessentially urban candidate,” almost needless to say. He is the turn-of-the-millenium version. Raised worldly in Hawaii and Indonesia, a community organizer and civil rights attorney, scrappy Chicago politician, a person of color, mixed-race even! His celebratory election night event in Nov 2008 appropriately filled Grant Park, an urban park if ever there was one, wedged in between the Loop and Lake Michigan. Obama’s election itself did illustrate the strong support for Democratic policies among residents of large urban centers. These two maps, one of Obama 2008 counties, another of so-called “metropolitan areas” shows, to be sure, some remarkable overlap between them. The third overlay map, in particular, shows a pretty striking Obama election dominance in large urban agglomerations, whereas the Census-termed “urban clusters” frequently fall into red/McCain zones.

2008 General Election Results, by County, Obama in blue, McCain in red

Urbanized Areas and Urban Clusters, U.S. Census 2010

2008 General Election map overlaid on U.S. Census 2010 urbanized areas and clusters

But in many ways Mitt Romney is as well an urban candidate. Born in Detroit (!), Romney’s history since has been resoundingly urban. Romney’s father George Romney was not only chairman and president of American Motors Corporation, thus completely steeped in Detroit’s urban glory, but also served, rather surprisingly, as secretary of HUD, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Romney himself was governor of Massachusetts, 92% “urban” (U.S. Census again – fun comparison fact: Illinois “urban,” 88%), and home to some of the densest incorporated small cities, like Somerville. More importantly, however, are the vehicles of Mitt Romney’s “success.” From the raft of corporate buyouts in the late 80s and early 90s to the exploitation of Russia’s newly opened tobacco market and oft-repeated outsourcing of jobs, Bain & Company and Bain Capital’s profits hinge on the liberalization of markets and urban restructuring that are intertwined with processes of global urbanization. Fittingly, Bain Capital’s headquarters are now located in the John Hancock Tower, Boston’s glassy ode to urbanness.

Bain Capital’s headquarters are in the John Hancock Tower, Boston’s monument to the urban

The neglect of serious debate on the urban comes at a particularly critical time. As I’ve written in a previous post, cities are epicenters of inequality, in the U.S. and elsewhere, even as they are held up as pearls-in-progress of a sustainable urban future. The speed of urbanization across the world is now occurring at dizzying speed, with very-large-scale urban agglomerations becoming ever more the norm than the exception in at least three continents of the world. To invoke the oft-stated mantra that more than 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities may be just as meaningless as stating that 80% of the U.S. is urbanized. However, it is unquestionable that many, many more around the world increasingly confront fast shifting urban environments, livelihoods, and challenges. It is a luxury, and, in my opinion, a mistaken one, for U.S. presidential candidates to so easily set aside the issues of the urban. Urban policy should be a discussion of foreign policy as much as – more than – national security. U.S. policies don’t just affect U.S. cities.

The idea of the “urban” has been used to ideological ends. Then, to demonize immigrants, people of color, and those in poverty, and to write off vast swaths of urban areas previously decimated by urban renewal. And now, to pitch a kind of diverse, creative, dynamic, sustainable lifestyle, too often devoid of politics or issues of equity and justice. But the issues central to the urban remain – poverty and inequality, gentrification, uneven development, and displacement, environment and health. Forty-four years ago French sociologist Henri Lefebvre coined the “right to the city” – le droit à la ville – “a transformed and renewed right to urban life.” These days this challenge, in the U.S., is taken up by grassroots movements like the Right to the City alliance, fighting urban center to urban center for racial, economic, and environmental justice. Our elected leaders really should be part of this movement. They at the very least need to say something about it.


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